Manager, the American Enterprise Institute's Program on American Citizenship
Forget Jonathan Franzen and all his friends in Brooklyn who have something IMPORTANT to say about the way we live now. (If you really can't help yourself, click on that first link and read B.R. Myers's scathing review of Franzen's Freedom.) The real novelists of ideas today are both women, and neither one lives in New York.
The first is Marilynne Robinson, author of just three novels, but all of them gems: Housekeeping, Gilead, and Home. If you haven't read them, I'm recommending them again (only $30 for all three on Amazon!). For everyone else, I urge you to pick up her latest nonfiction work, Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness From the Modern Myth of the Self, which collects four lectures she gave at Yale University on "religion, in the light of science and philosophy." As always, her prose is gorgeous, and her arguments—against the scientific fundamentalism of the so-called new atheists—razor-sharp.
The second is the English novelist Hilary Mantel. I wish I was recommending The Mirror and the Light, her eagerly awaited sequel to 2009's Wolf Hall, but that will have to wait until next year (I hope!). While I suffer pangs of anticipation, you can enjoy Mantel's brilliant recreation of the life of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's chief minister. Her scrupulously researched Wolf Hall does the impossible—reinventing the familiar Tudor saga from royal soap opera to history of the modern nation-state. (A certain Niccolò makes a cameo appearance.) But Mantel is used to performing miracles: with her novel of the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety, she manages to make even Robespierre sympathetic while never letting readers forget his crimes.
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Former Editorial Assistant, Claremont Review of Books
No Claremont reading list is complete without an exhortation to read and reread the classical works of political philosophy. A list of the best translations of Plato can be found here, and a list of the best translations of Aristotle and Xenophon can be found here. Politically, these works demonstrate the limits of politics, and the ways in which consistent laws, virtue, and prudent statesmanship are necessary for the health of any regime. Individually, they help liberate us from the reigning ideologies and relativism of our age. They allow us to examine our deepest longings and consider how we might lead most excellent lives. With fresh eyes, we are guided to confront those common-sense but unsettling questions that we can never quite expel from our minds: What is best for us, and how does that relate to the common good? Is there a truth about the nature of things, and how is it we might know that truth?
True, these works are very difficult, so in keeping with the Claremont spirit I should add that one can never go wrong reading the works of Leo Strauss for guidance. Strauss helps reveal the careful manner with which the ancient philosophers wrote, while at the same time exemplifying their rationalism, depth, and charm in his own writing. An Introduction to Political Philosophy, a collection of his essays edited by Hilail Gildin, offers a fine introduction to his thought. Then I recommend one turn to Natural Right and History, On Tyranny, and The City and Man for a fuller look at how Strauss explored the question of justice and the quarrel between ancient and modern philosophy. This spring one will also be able to read transcripts and listen to audio files of many of his courses, which are being published online by the Leo Strauss Center at the University of Chicago.
There have also been excellent commentaries on classical political philosophy in the last year that deserve mention. One can learn a great deal about Aristotle's Ethics from Ronna Burger's Aristotle's Dialogue with Socrates: On the Nicomachean Ethics and about Plato's Apology from David Leibowitz's The Ironic Defense of Socrates: Plato's Apology. I would especially commend a book by my former teacher Mark Blitz, ambitiously titled Plato's Political Philosophy. It is surely one of best books written on Plato both for beginners and for scholars. It covers many of Plato's dialogues and explores the relationships among his various discussions of virtue and politics. I find Blitz's descriptions of Plato's understanding of the nature of philosophy very helpful. One will especially learn a lot from his discussions of nature and the ideas, as well as from his close examinations of beauty in the Greater Hippias, pleasure and the good in the Philebus, and political knowledge and measurement in the Statesman.
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John J. Pitney, Jr.
Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics, Claremont McKenna College
The winter of 2010-2011 is springtime for James Madison. From different perspectives, three books help us see the link between the work of the framers and the politics of the 20th and 21st centuries.
James Madison Rules America: The Constitutional Origins of Congressional Partisanship, by William F. Connelly, Jr.
Drawing on his experience and extensive study, Connelly argues that the Constitution governs congressional party politics. In our system of separated powers, he explains, neither party in Congress is ever purely the government or the opposition. Sometimes during unified government, the majority breaks with the administration while the minority supports it. Think of NAFTA under Clinton and Afghanistan under Obama. And during divided government, each party faces the constant and uncomfortable choice between cooperation and confrontation. With Republicans taking control of the House and Democrats narrowly hanging on to the Senate, Connelly's analysis is especially timely. CRB readers will take special note of his thoughts on Woodrow Wilson's Congressional Government. He gives Wilson his due as "a worthy opponent for the Father of our Constitution," but concludes that Wilson misunderstood the separation of powers as simply a barrier to the abuse of power instead of a device to foster deliberation and compromise.
The Constitution on the Campaign Trail: The Surprising Political Career of America's Founding Document, by Andrew E. Busch
James Madison may rule America, but do politicians acknowledge his handiwork? Do they actually engage in rational discourse about the Constitution? Busch addresses these questions by analyzing candidate messages, party platforms, presidential debates, and broadcast ads. Not surprisingly, he finds that the use of constitutional rhetoric ebbed from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th. He also shows that it "has survived and even grown since the mid-1960s," though it dipped during the George W. Bush presidency. He concludes by asking whether that dip is an aberration or the start of another downward trend. Since the book's publication in 2007, we have seen a revival of interest in constitutional issues. Members of the "tea party" movement, among others, have criticized the Obama Administration for violating the letter and spirit of the Constitution. It is ironic that this revival is a reaction to a former lecturer in constitutional law.
Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. The Supreme Court, by Jeff Shesol
This narrative history of FDR's 1937 "court-packing" plan is a great read. The story is also another testament to the relevance of the Constitution. Despite Roosevelt's landslide 1936 reelection and his enormous popularity, his effort to stack the Supreme Court with pro-New Deal liberals ran into bipartisan opposition from lawmakers who saw a threat to the separation of powers. As Shesol points out, constitutional worries about Roosevelt had been mounting for years. During his first term, conservatives from both parties formed the American Liberty League, whose mission was "to defend and uphold the Constitution." The League, in turn, formed the Lawyers' Vigilance Committee to mount court challenges to the constitutionality of New Deal legislation. Shesol did most of his research and writing before the reaction to the Obama Administration, which makes the parallels all the more striking.
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Julie Ann Ponzi
Fellow, the Claremont Institute
Y Bridge City: The Story of Zanesville and Muskingum County, Ohio, by Norris F. Schneider
Norris F. Schneider and his work were something of a local phenomenon when I was growing up in the place that is the subject of this book. His works were commended to the young but—not being required in school—they were most often disregarded. Later in my cocksure youth, when reading history became more of a vocation than a requirement, I was convinced that local histories—mirroring their small subject—were merely quaint at best and, what's worse, probably parochial. So I reasoned that though they might offer something to stir native pride or curiosity, a local history couldn't possibly offer anything to stir larger, more universal sentiments. These days I am no longer young and, therefore, I have lost most of the knowledge and surety of my youth, so I decided to pick up this volume as I browsed through a local antique shop on one of my recent visits home.
Imagine my surprise, then, at finding this passage in the introduction:
This book was written in the belief that American citizens would be better qualified to solve the problems of their government if they were informed about the making of their nation. If they understood how hard their ancestors worked to win our liberties, they would be less likely to be become the dupes of un-American propaganda. Many people, however, are too busy to read the complex record of this vast country. If they look into a book on American history, it is likely to seem remote and unrelated to daily life. Perhaps the average man could read the story of his own Main Street with more understanding. Through a review of national influences upon his community, he might become familiar with the making of the American heritage.
The volume—as it worked to tell the story of our town in narrative rather than in thematic fashion—did not fail to live up to this ambition. And to the extent that there are similar volumes about other communities (maybe, even, your own) I think that one might find in them much to improve not only his understanding of America but also—and what may be even more important—his ability to share it with his friends and fellow citizens.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, by Mark Twain
Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
Last Christmas I reported on some works of literature that brought great pleasure to me and to my children as we read them aloud together. They are now aged 11 and 9 years, but I have been waiting for the day—almost since they were born—that we could begin to share the stories of Mark Twain. So eager was I for this experience that I have attempted it at various times and in various ways—always hoping to inspire the kind of rapt attention and wonderment I imagined in this fantasy.
I read them abridged versions when they were very, very young—both to relieve myself of the duty of having to read less inspiring children's literature, and in the hopes enjoying and remembering this, they might someday ask for the real thing on their own. I thought I was waiting patiently, but those hopes did not materialize. So I began to ply them with various film versions of the stories. These they were happy to endure (particularly if it meant more TV time and less bedtime) but, again, they were failures. They sparked no good conversation and did not seem to offer much, in any event, beyond surface plot development. Characters were not developed and stopping a movie to explain context is annoying.
Next I tried forcing the spring, alternately, with bribery and threats. "I will read that dreadful book to you that your friend told you about IF you let me first read this..." or "I won't let you stay up late for a story tonight unless I can read this." I was then reminded that—as it is with terrorists—negotiating with children is always a bad idea. This, too, was a failure.
Then: inspiration! Perhaps the problem with Twain is that the dialects are unfamiliar and I don't do the imitation well? Maybe my reading of it is stilted or unnatural and this explains why they can't or won't follow it? So I downloaded a very good recording of the thing and tried it that way. No. I had forgotten that the main point of my reading to them—from their point of view—was that it was me reading to them. But I had one more extravagant trick up my sleeve. (I would make them want to whitewash this fence or be damned!) On one of our vacations we happened to be near Virginia City—Twain's main destination in Roughing It. So I convinced the tribe to spend some time there and—having that book handy (by sheer coincidence, of course!)—I was able to get them to listen to some of the descriptive paragraphs of the curiosities that were then within our powers of observation. Yet, another year passed, and still my advances at taking up with Tom Sawyer were rebuffed. "Let it go," I told myself in Twain's fashion.
Just as I had forever resigned myself to the horrifying possibility that my own children would have absolutely no interest in my favorite American author, a miracle occurred! Their school took them on a field trip (a day out of school!) to see a production of Big River (the musical version of Twain's Huckleberry Finn). Both came home insisting that they wanted to spend more time with Huck. Stupid fool that I have been! I had learned nothing from Twain until my own untutored children re-taught me this lesson: "that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do."